VIA Rail’s Easterly Class is a perfect beginning for a trip
to Halifax for this summer’s festivals and attractions –
including the popular Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo

The last time I took a passenger rail trip to the East Coast I was five years old and by today’s standards the train I traveled on would be considered vintage. Nevertheless, that childhood excursion was the beginning of a lifelong passion for riding the rails and in the grips of a nostalgic moment last year I decided to relive the experience. The duplication of that long ago trip was different in many ways but despite the span of several decades the core value was surprisingly the same.

Instead of a steam locomotive, this time the excursion unfolded on VIA Rail‘s diesel Ocean train where I indulged myself with its Easterly class service. Departing Montreal in the late afternoon and arriving in Halifax the following afternoon, the overnight Ocean runs a year-round, six days a week schedule between Montreal and Halifax but from mid-June to mid-October the special Easterly tourist class service is brought onboard. This top-of-the-line addendum has some nice touches that were certainly not available on my first trip.

One of the additions is what VIA calls its learning co-ordinators. Touted as a “Maritime learning experience,“ the co-ordinator on my trip, Abby Salah, offered a variety of interesting presentations on the cultural and historical aspects of the regions we passed through: Quebec’s south shore, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Salah’s entertaining dissertations took place in the panoramic dome car (exclusive to Easterly class passengers) beginning as we departed the Montreal station with a champagne toast featuring an excellent vintage produced by an award-winning Atlantic Canada winery.

Notwithstanding the trip routing that during daylight hours embodies a picturesque Maritime landscape; the inclusion of Easterly Class learning co-ordinators greatly enriches the experience. Although drinking in the scenery is one thing as the Ocean rolls by communities and regions, the knowledgeable co-ordinators bring places to life with their anecdotes about historical and current events.
Overall, the Easterly class is VIA’s brand of upscale travel (for which passengers pay more) and includes all meals in a smart looking dining car with tables dressed out in pastel-coloured cloths.

Although taking meals in the dining car on that long ago trip was quite wonderful with crisp white tablecloths, gleaming silver and incredibly attentive servers, the big difference today is menu choices. Easterly passengers can expect gourmet selections such as garlic & herb shrimp brochettes, surf and turf, crab cakes, juicy steak, grilled halibut, a variety of pasta dishes, tasty soups, fresh salads and, of course, much more.

By train standards worldwide, Easterly Class sleeping accommodations are comfortable with in-room facilities. Most of the Easterly sleeping cars have double and double deluxe bedrooms; with the latter equipped with in-room showers. During the day, the bed (or beds) that feature Down-filled comforters are converted into seating. There are various configurations for Easterly sleeping accommodations and they all seemed pretty attractive to me since any sweet dreams I had on the original trip occurred in an upper berth.

During restful, meditative hours onboard, I had plenty of time to compare train travel of old with present day. Obvious differences included state-of-the-art-machinery and a dome car but in total, while this trip may have been a little less genteel, it was entirely pleasant and not terribly unlike that first memorable experience. Today, I still love the clickety-clack sound of wheels on train tracks but what I probably enjoy most is the feeling of indulgence–that relaxed “sit back and let somebody else do the driving” kind of feel.

Moreover, Halifax is a good place to disembark well-rested and ready to explore a waterfront city that is filled with entertainment options. Boasting one of the world’s largest natural harbours and home of the famous Bluenose sailing ship, the city and surrounding area teem with an impressive array of museums, galleries, historic sites, restaurants and lively nightlife.

It’s also a city of summer festivals and among the most animated is the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo occurring this year July 1-8. This military and civilian extravaganza features more than 2,000 international and Canadian performers presenting music, dance, drama, comedy and military displays. Just as spirited is the annual Buskers Festival (Aug. 10-18) when some of the world’s top street performers such as jugglers, contortionists and fire breathers descend on the city. As festivals go, there’s probably none more impressive than the Tall Ships Festival. When these awesome sailing vessels from countries around the world drop anchor in Halifax Harbour from July 13-16, the event represents the largest international gathering of world-class Tall Ships.

Beyond festivals, history buffs will find the city is filled with exceptional sites and attractions. One of the most visited is the Citadel, a Halifax landmark that sits high on a hill overlooking the city. This 19th century, star-shaped British fortification offers daily summer tours and a highlight every day is the traditional firing of the noon-day gun from atop the ramparts.

Another compelling attraction is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Here, visitors can explore the seafaring history of Halifax and Nova Scotia. Also, the Pier 21 National Historic Site sees thousands of visitors a year interested in its history from 1920 to 1970 as the official doorway to Canada for more than one million immigrants from around the globe.

Many sites and activities are held on or near the waterfront where a plank-board Harbourwalk area is the liveliest place to be during summer. Cruise ships coming and going, shops galore, outdoor eateries, buskers and a 24-hour casino are a big part of what defines this friendly, cosmopolitan city.

TRAVEL PLANNER

Go online at www.destinationhalifax.com or call 1-877-422-9334 for more information. On request, Destination Halifax will also mail a free visitors guide.

For additional information about VIA Rail’s Ocean schedule and its class options see www.viarail.ca or call 1-888-VIA-RAIL. More information is also available on VIA’s coast-to-coast travel.